Victor Frankenstein film review: This new take on the classic is a bit of a mess
When I was a kid the old Universal horror classics of the 1930s still got screened on television: most of us did a decent impression of Boris Karloff's monster, shuffling around the school yard arms outstretched, dragging a leg and moaning incoherently. That version of the creature came from James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, two wildly impressionistic films that turned Mary Shelley's gothic novel into something thrillingly cinematic. They set a high bar, and no one's got anywhere near it since.
This latest effort doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence (note how I didn't), and that's mainly because it never really decides what kind of film it wants to be. There are elements of steampunk about Paul McGuigan's film, and Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies are an obvious influence, but Victor Frankenstein also flirts clumsily with penny dreadful melodrama, and its fast-paced tone verges on hysteria. Pity the poor actors lost in the middle of this madness, and James McAvoy in particular struggles to build a coherent character.
He is young Frankenstein, a febrile medical student in mid-19th century London whose bizarre experiments have won him few friends at college. He's at the circus one night when a young trapeze artist called Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) falls from a great height into the ring. She seems mortally wounded until a young hunchbacked clown (Daniel Radcliffe) appears from nowhere, realises her broken clavicle has pierced her lung, and punches it back into place.
Frankenstein is deeply impressed by this bit of business, and by the hunchback's mysterious grasp of physiognomy. The poor chap is effectively the slave of his bullying ringmaster, but Victor helps him escape and takes him under his wing. He christens him Igor, and slowly reveals to him his grand plan to create life.
Igor is horrified when Victor - ta-dah! - unveils a hideous creature he's cobbled together from animal parts including most of a chimpanzee, but more impressed when Frankenstein makes it spark briefly to life by running a thousand volts through it.
But Igor gets cold feet when Victor stages a demonstration at his university and the ape thing runs amok. Frankenstein now intends to try this technique out on a creature made from bits of men, but Igor wants nothing to do with it. And while the police become ever more interested in Victor's macabre hobbies, a mysterious benefactor emerges to further complicate matters.
If there's a knack to making Frankenstein films, no one except James Whale ever seems to have understood it. Hammer had a go at them in the 1960s and 70s, but the results were risible, almost as funny in fact as the intentionally satirical Carry on Screaming. A 2014 effort called I, Frankenstein was shockingly bad, and the less said about Kenneth Branagh's grandiose 1994 film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein the better.
Victor Frankenstein has a sense of humour, and its premise of making Igor the moral conscience and hero of the story is refreshing. But it lacks the composure and focus to make this approach work, and too little effort is expended in drawing the viewer in and making Frankenstein's crazy experiments seem believable.
Andrew Scott has a bit of fun playing a god-fearing police inspector determined to spoil the party, and Daniel Radcliffe does a terrific job physically, especially early on, though my favourite Igor will always be Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. But it's poor James McAvoy who's really hung out to dry here.
With little in the way of character to hang on to, he overacts wildly, flashing his teeth and widening his eyes manically every time the script fails him, which is often. And while Victor Frankenstein has moments of wit, overall it felt a bit like watching a pantomime in a butcher's shop.
Victor Frankenstein (12A, 110mins)